Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Belly in Antiquity

Last evening, I attended a rather haphazard gallery lecture at the Met, "The Body in Antiquity." The focus interested me: how did early artists portray the body in art We started with a Greek sculpture, the Kouros, the oldest freestanding, fully nude sculpture of the human body in marble. The young male body likely marked a burial site. The guide pointed out the Egyptian artistic influences: angular lines, the jewelry, eyes apparently lined with kohl, the left foot stepping forward. Depictions of the body quickly evolved into more anatomically considered renderings with curved features and musculature. The male body focused on power and ruling and physicality.

The first fully nude female depiction of the goddess Aphrodite/Venus suprised at her bath came later and created a different stir. Men stared at her for days, the guide informed us and one man was rumored to have hidden in the temple at night in order to "defile" her. This is a marble Roman copy of an earlier bronze statue made by the famous Greek sculptor Praxiteles who changed art by making it more anatomically correct. He wrote a book on the subject which has since been lost, but other writers make reference to it. The physical body has always had such mystique, respect, and deep meaning to artists, writers, healers, and scientists alike.
What I notice, of course, is the sensuality detail of the breasts and belly, always such a power source and the place where the differences in male and female gender are centered.
The lecture ended with a fast streak through the Persian galleries where we looked at a priestly seated ruler, heavily clothed save for a bare shoulder and a priestly, shaved chin (this was in opposition to the hairy Roman rulers) and finally a dive into the Hatshepsut room in the Egyptian galleries where the female body was depicted as male and female. This interested me less not because of content but because I'd seen this material before.
Those interested in this idea might benefit from the online lecture: "The Nude in Western Art and Its Beginnings in Antiquity."

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